Tuesday 24 April 2018

No 'better man' than Kidney when odds are against you


WOUNDS heal, chicks dig scars, glory lasts forever... Yessir, it's Ireland versus the All Blacks, the match that turns us just a little bit crazy. A fixture where rationality tends to be submerged by desire and the craving for a first victory and reason to crow at these self-appointed, self-important 'guardians' of the game can lead to ill-advised pronouncements.

"Kidney Factor To Help End Kiwi Jinx' ran the headline in the Irish Independent over a match preview which predicted Ireland's big-game players striking a blow against a "callow" All Blacks side. What happens? Jamie Heaslip gets sent off, Ronan O'Gara gets binned and New Zealand run amok running up a record score against the Paddies.

A humiliating experience for any Irish person present, with the Kiwis not slow to mock the "Shameful Seamuses," whose "Guinness turned sour" on a night when "Irish confidence proved to be nothing but Blarney." Lesson learned, in every sense.

So, there will be no rash prediction of an Irish upset tomorrow: everything points towards another All Blacks victory. However, it is not an exercise in bodhran-beating to express your belief that the Irish will be much improved on their recent performances and will give the Kiwis a proper rattle.

It is a huge challenge for Declan Kidney, who finds himself at the centre of a critical storm -- an unfamiliar position for a coach whose glittering career has been defined by consistent achievement.

Thus, the search for positives is based on blind faith rather than hard evidence, but, as the build-up continues towards a match where Ireland are seen as nothing more than road-kill on the All Blacks' journey to World Cup fulfilment, the mind is drawn back 18 years to another Ireland-New Zealand showdown when the Irish were written off.

Kidney was in charge of an Irish Schools side that was considered less than vintage and travelled to the far side of the planet with their much-vaunted Kiwi opponents eyeing up a bout of Leprechaun-bashing.

"We were completely written off," recalled Rory Coveney, the ex-Clongowes second-row. "We had a poor season, we'd lost to Wales and England and were considered to be an average Schools side. We had guys like Anthony Foley, Jonny Bell and Jeremy Davidson, but nobody gave us a hope in hell going down there.

"The Kiwis are obsessive about their rugby and there was a lot of excitement about their schools' side, which had the likes of Jeff Wilson and Jonah Lomu, who was a No 8 back then, but we had a run of provincial games running into the Test match and when we started winning those, the pressure increased.

"We were billeted in the houses of our opposite numbers and everywhere we went you'd get in the neck from the fathers and brothers telling you how s**t we were and how we were going to get creamed. Then, when we won those matches, the same guys wouldn't come down to dinner.

"Kidney was phenomenal. He had a simple rationale: 'Why are you here? What do you want to achieve?' He always started by saying that the most important thing was to enjoy ourselves and then stressed the importance of honesty, confidence and belief in ourselves.


"What was brilliant about him coaching-wise was the ability to adapt and learn from the teams we were playing and by the end of that tour we were executing moves and plays we weren't aware even existed before. There was an incredible team spirit, even among the guys who were left out. Deccie tapped into all the negativity we were getting and turned it into a positive, he has a Zen-like presence and fellahs would have done anything for him."

Ireland played superbly in the Test and were denied an epic victory by Jeff Wilson, who knocked over the winning points from the half-way touchline with the last kick of the game. It may have ended in heroic failure, but that 1992 Test was an example of Kidney's capacity to extract the absolute maximum from his players -- particularly against opponents who are deemed to be 'superior'.

Eighteen years on, the bar has been raised, the game has been irrevocably altered, but the challenge is the same.

"We nearly won that Test against all the odds and it was down to Kidney," said Coveney. "You wouldn't want anyone else at the helm when you are up against it.

"No better man."

Irish Independent

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